Will this be the season in which the Licking Valley High School football team's four-year stranglehold on the MSL-Ohio Division championship trophy finally ends?

Will this be the season in which the Licking Valley High School football team's four-year stranglehold on the MSL-Ohio Division championship trophy finally ends?

"Some people are saying that. In fact, it's kind of become a running joke that Heath is the favorite this year," first-year Granville coach J.R. Wait said. "That's nothing against Valley. It's just that Heath probably returns more than everyone else.

"But I'm going to go on the record as saying that until someone shows they can beat Valley on the field, they're still the team to beat."

That also appears to be the consensus among MSL-Ohio coaches. Or, at least, that's what they're willing to admit to publicly.

"Until somebody beats them on the field, Licking Valley is still the team to beat," Columbus Academy coach Mark Barren said. "Since we've been in the MSL, which was 2003, they've won it every year."

But that's not quite true even if it sure seems like it.

New Albany subdued the mighty Panthers 28-21 on a Thursday night in September, 2004 to finish 7-0 and claim the league title. Officially, the Panthers went 4-3 in the MSL-Ohio that season, but wins against the Vikings and Bexley that year were later forfeited because Licking Valley used an ineligible player.

Otherwise, the only other league setback the Panthers have suffered on the field since the MSL-Ohio was formed in 2003 came in a shocking 33-31 loss at Granville that first year as Licking Valley's 44-game regular-season winning streak concluded. The Panthers still took the undisputed championship, however, when the Blue Aces fell 42-14 against the last strong Whitehall team a week later in the regular-season finale. Academy also beat Granville that season 49-13 en route to becoming the league's first state champion with a Division V title, and Newark Catholic became the second with a Division VI crown in 2007.

Valley, meanwhile, lost in the Division III state final in 2007 and in the state semifinals in both '03 and '07. That New Albany team in 2004 advanced to a Division IV regional final, and Licking Valley also lost in a regional final in '05.

"I love playing in this division. It's certainly a tough, competitive conference," Barren said. "If you look at the MSL, and especially the Ohio Division, football might be the strongest sport."

With Bexley qualifying for the first time in Division III a year ago, six of the eight league members now have advanced to the playoffs since 2003, with Heath and Lakewood still chasing that goal. Granville also qualified in Division III for a second consecutive season.

Still, last year seems like a long time ago following the graduation of most of the league's elite players.

That list is headed by Valley's Storm Klein, who now is at Ohio State. Former Panther Vince German was recruited by Bowling Green, Bexley's Seth White is at Ball State and Granville's Adam Alderman is walking on at Ohio University.

Many more of last year's seniors are playing college football at some level outside Division I.

"The league will be the opposite of what it was a year ago. Last year the league was top heavy in experienced senior talent," Bexley coach John Smith said. "This year will be different. I'm not saying it will be good or bad, but it will be different. Everyone has a few question marks in camp right now and (is) trying to get that figured out."

Licking Valley, which has won 32 consecutive MSL-Ohio games dating to its final four contests in 2004, returns only two starters on both sides of the ball. Hence, there's a feeling of some vulnerability there.

"Heath's probably got as much back as anyone," Panthers' coach Randy Baughman said. "Granville and Newark Catholic have a lot back, too, and Bexley and Academy always have a lot of athletes. People are saying we're really going to have to work for our money and I believe them."

The Green Wave's Josh Hendershot has made a verbal commitment to play at Toledo, coach Bill Franks said, and teammate Clay Harris is another potential Division I recruit. Both will play on the offensive line, among other duties.

"We like our team," Franks said. "But it's still Valley's crown until someone takes it from them. That's no easy task, either."

Granville, which also graduated three-year starting quarterback Cory Becher, has a slew of returning starters, including linebacker Austen Harrison. There's also several returning starting quarterbacks and they include Academy's Josh Hill, Heath's Cole Benner, Newark Catholic's Kevin Cox and Lakewood's Jordan Gray.

And when it comes to players who can change the complexion of a game in a hurry, perhaps nobody can touch Heath's multi-purpose Charles Gresham.

The Vikings, who have brought back 2003 coach Jim Collis as an assistant, will open their MSL-Ohio schedule against visiting Granville on Sept. 17, and Academy also plays Licking Valley and Newark Catholic at home.

Bexley has to play at Granville, at Newark Catholic and at Heath before playing host to the Panthers in its league finale on Oct. 30.

The Green Wave might face the toughest hurdle because it has to play Heath, Academy and Valley all on the road before the finale Oct. 30 at Granville, a game that almost assuredly will carry plenty of postseason implications.

The Blue Aces, meanwhile, will play the two MSL-Ohio teams it lost to a year ago at home in consecutive weeks, Sept. 25 against Bexley and Oct. 2 against the Panthers.

If so many of the league's coaches are correct in choosing Heath as a viable threat to Licking Valley's supremacy, however, fans won't have to wait long to see one of the top games. The Bulldogs play at Licking Valley -- which has never lost a home MSL-Ohio game -- in their league opener Sept. 18.

"It's not easy playing Valley anywhere, let alone at their place," Heath coach Mark Collier said. "I know people are saying a lot of good things about us, but we've got kids to replace and a lot of work to do before we start the league.

"It's nice hearing how people respect us, but I don't want to put any undue pressure on our kids. It's a long seven weeks and a lot can happen."

Inside the division

2008 STANDINGS

Team League Overall

Licking Valley 7-0 12-2

Bexley 6-1 7-4

Granville 5-2 8-3

Heath 4-3 7-3

Newark Catholic 3-4 6-4

Cols. Academy 2-5 4-6

Lakewood 1-6 1-9

Whitehall 0-7 0-10

2009 LEAGUE SCHEDULE

Sept. 17

Bexley at Whitehall

Granville at Columbus Academy

Sept. 18

Heath at Licking Valley

Sept. 19

Lakewood at Newark Catholic

Sept. 25

Bexley at Granville

Columbus Academy at Lakewood

Newark Catholic at Heath

Whitehall at Licking Valley

Oct. 2

Lakewood at Bexley

Newark Catholic at Columbus Academy

Licking Valley at Granville

Heath at Whitehall

Oct. 9

Columbus Academy at Heath

Granville at Whitehall

Lakewood at Licking Valley

Oct. 10

Bexley at Newark Catholic

Oct. 16

Columbus Academy at Bexley

Heath at Granville

Whitehall at Lakewood

Newark Catholic at Licking Valley

Oct. 23

Bexley at Heath

Licking Valley at Columbus Academy

Granville at Lakewood

Oct. 24

Whitehall at Newark Catholic.

Oct. 30

Licking Valley at Bexley

Columbus Academy at Whitehall

Newark Catholic at Granville

Lakewood at Heath